General Ashcroft

Attorney at War

Nancy V. Baker

Reviled as a fascist and zealot by libertarians and liberals but praised as a great patriot and devout man of God by many conservatives, John Ashcroft may have been the most powerful and polarizing attorney general in our nation's history. Looking past such oversimplified stereotypes, Nancy Baker offers the first in-depth study of Ashcroft's controversial tenure as attorney general-and as domestic commander in our campaign against global terrorism.

Addressing new concerns about challenges to civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, Baker provides a critical assessment of Ashcroft's impact on national life within the context of an enormous expansion of presidential power. Baker depicts a man who even before 9/11 was in search of a mission and then found it in the "War on Terror." She explores how Ashcroft's counterterrorism actions eroded checks on executive power, arguing that the attorney general used both the formal and informal powers of his office to expand executive and law enforcement authority—and did so at the additional expense of criminal procedural rights, privacy rights, and government transparency.

“An interesting and well-written book that provides important insights into the thinking of one attorney general, the history of law and politics in the office of attorney general, the national security policies of the Bush administration, and modern conservative theory of governance. . . . An accessible account of an important figure and some of the most important issues facing the nation.

—Perspectives on Political Science

“A comprehensive assessment of John Ashcroft’s tenure as Bush’s first attorney general.

—London Review of Books
See all reviews...

Baker tells how the war against terrorism, the unique legal policy role of the attorney general, and Ashcroft's presence in that office dramatically expanded the power and impact of executive power in domestic affairs. She identifies Ashcroft's rhetorical tactics that set his actions at odds with the public interest—such as browbeating critics and marginalizing dissent—and challenges the success claimed by Ashcroft and his supporters in safeguarding America by documenting the Justice Department's lack of effectiveness in key prosecutions. She also includes an enlightening analysis of the Patriot Act and its implications for both civil liberties and government power.

By documenting the ongoing importance of Ashcroft's legacy—a legacy now continued by Alberto Gonzalez—Baker shows how he dramatically changed the office and disrupted our constitutional system of divided and checked powers. Her close scrutiny of Ashcroft's actions vividly highlights the role that an attorney general can play in shaping presidential power during national crises and provides a cautionary tale for anyone eager to protect our civil liberties.

About the Author

Nancy V. Baker is associate professor of government at New Mexico State University and author of Conflicting Loyalties: Law and Politics in the U.S. Attorney General's Office, 1789-1990.